space sun

The iPod and the geek: Credit where credit is due

My iPod developed a bug with the headphone jack, whereby I could only hear in one ear. Lots of wiggling of the headphone plug occasionally brought back sound in both ears, but it was only temporary. So I reported the problem to Apple, and a day later, a pre-paid UPS envelope was sitting on my (proverbial) doorstep. I put the iPod in the envelope and sent it off, and three days later, I have a shiny new iPod! Credit where credit is due - the Apple repair service (within the one-year warranty period) is first class, and I hadn't even bought AppleCare or any of their extended warranty packages.
  • Current Mood
    happy happy
space sun

Plunging into photo albums

Inspired by a colleague and a gift I recently made for my sister, I have decided to try making a photo album of a recent holiday, using an online photo-printing service (one of those that provides software to design the photo album on the PC, and then have it printed). I'm getting to grips with the software, which (so far) works very well, but I've found that I am singularly uninspired when it comes to design. I don't know how much to add, how much to write, whether to add stuff other than photos (maps?), or if there's anything else I should be aware / be wary of. For instance, how clearly does text show up on a cluttered background (the software I use doesn't support semi-transparent backgrounds for text boxes, boo-hoo)?

Since I'm certain that I'm behind the times here (as recently as eighteen months ago, I finished my last photo album - done with glue and cardboard), and that many of you have already made photo albums the 21st century way: do you have any tips or suggestions for me? Share your wisdom :)
  • Current Mood
    curious questioning
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The iPod and the geek: after the honeymoon

Three months of iPod touch, and time for some more thoughts.

I bought a rubber protector for the iPod, and it's done a very good job of protecting the somewhat fragile (in that the material tarnishes easily, there is no structual damage to be seen) back of the unit, as well as making the iPod less likely to slide off desks and the like. The iPod has held up very well under daily use of being shoved into pockets, rucksacks and desk drawers, and even getting the occasional spray of sand. There is not a hint of a scratch on the screen, and all the buttons work flawlessly.

I also bought myself a pair of Apple in-ear headphones. The headphones are fairly good and very comfortable, but for me the big selling point was the remote and microphone: it's tiny, yet I can use it to increase and decrease volume, pause/resume music, and skip forward/backwards in my playlist. The microphone picks up sound fairly well, and I can understand myself clearly when I use it to record audio memos. Good design on Apple's part.

A month or so ago, Apple released the 3.0 software version for iPods (and iPhones) - even though it's not free, it brough a whole slew of little improvements which all chalk up plus marks in my book. To highlight a few, there is a "back 30 seconds" button for podcasts, and a system whereby you can change the seeking speed by moving your finger vertically (moving horizontally to seek). It's very intuitive and works great for those hour-long podcasts, where a millimeter of movement would normally equate to five minutes of running time! Something else I noticed only recently (it may or may not have been in 3.0) is that when I resume a podcast or video after having left it for a bit (more than a minute or two), it automatically resumes five seconds or so before the point where it left off, making it easier to remember where you were. Also, from the main menu you can now access a search function which searches the entire contents of your iPod (contacts, songs, videos...), which makes finding things easy. It's little touches like this which speak of the quality of the iPod's design.

Speaking of video, the iPod only supports MPEG-4 and Quicktime Video (of course it does, we can't expect Apple to do anything but say "our way or the highway", now can we?), but some googling found MediaCoder, which transcodes AVI files into MPEG-4 files of the appropriate resolution. Once that's done, loading the videos onto the iPod is fairly easy (after some re-tagging to make sure they are listed under the correct heading). Playback is very smooth and the quality (despite the small screen) is excellent, I have watched a dozen TV episodes and several films on the iPod and I am hooked. I even catch myself wishing my commute was 10 minutes longer so that I could finish watching the episode I'm in the middle of! :) As with podcasts, the iPod remembers the place you left off in each video, so it's easy to start off from where you left off.

Using WiFi with the iPod also works very well. It automatically recognises known WiFi networks and logs you in whenever you're in range. With WiFi I've read my e-mails (using the iPod's e-mail reader), surfed the web (built-in Safari web browser) and updated my apps and podcasts. It all works very well, although I remain to be convinced by the iPod as a serious web-surfing tool; the screen is too small and the controls too slow (compared with mouse-and-keyboard) for anything more than a casual check of the weather forecast. The e-mail interface is decent, if a bit slow in downloading messages initially. It also uses hard-coded IMAP folder names, which is irritating if your e-mail provider uses differently-names folders (so I suddenly found myself with a "sent" and a "sent messages" folder - it took me a day to figure out where the latter had suddenly appeared from).

So I am very happy with my iPod, it's a beautiful little device which does just about everything I need from it (plus a lot more), and does it well. What I am not happy with, at all, is iTunes.

You may have gathered this sentiment from my previous posts on the subject, but some more things have come to light since. Starting with no support for AVI video files - I can understand the reasoning somewhat (AVI is a container format which can be used with any number of video and audio codecs), but at least give us a converter?

Next, audio normalisation - as anyone with a digital music collection drawn from a variety of sources knows, songs can vary greatly in volume (depending on the settings used when encoding the music file). The solution to this is called normalisation, giving all your sound files the same volume. There is a wonderful open standard used by almost everyone, called Replay Gain... everyone, of course, except Apple, who use their own SoundCheck algorithm. Except it's really lousy (peak clipping vs gain control, you can read about it if you want), it's never obvious when it's been run and when not (so I don't know which tracks have been normalised), and, worst of all, it encodes its information in cryptic hexadecimal codes in the audio file metadata. Way to be transparent, Appe - not only do you give us a crappy algorithm when there's a much better (free) standard available, but you stop us from using anything else (as iTunes obviously only recognises its own SoundCheck metatdata and ignores everything else)!

And as a final example (there are more, but I'll leave it at that for today), contacts synching is unreliable. I have yet to figure out what gets synched and what doesn't, as some changes made to contacts get synched back to the computer while others don't; I haven't figured out the pattern yet. Does anyone know more about this?

In conclusion, the iPod is a wonderful piece of equipment, but I am hard-pressed to find a redeeming feature in iTunes. There is nothing it does which some other programme doesn't do better. If the developers of Songbird manage to code (reverse-engineer?) full iPod support into their programme, I'll ditch iTunes like a dead monkey liver full of Ebola virus. Apple, great industrial designers that they are, are just as monopolistic as their friends in Redmont; we may use their products, but heaven forbid we try to use them in a way other than The Apple Way (tm).
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    pleased pleased
space sun

How to import podcasts into iTunes

That's it, it's official - I hate iTunes. The number of hoops it makes me jump through to import podcasts already saved on my hard disk (which might not necessarily be downloadable from the internet - for instance, if they are too old to feature in the RSS feeds) is just plain ridiculous. Simply importing the .mp3 file isn't enough, you need to tell iTunes to treat it as a podcast and not as a regular music file. iTunes is obviously living in a bubble - no podcasts exist which are not in the iTunes store.

To do this, you need to set some ID3 tags - nonstandard ones, obviously, so you need a program that can read/write these. I use mp3tag, but anything that can read extended ID3 tags will do.

You then need to set the following tags:

ITUNESPODCASTURL = the URL of the podcast's RSS feed

That's the bare minimum for iTunes to properly file it under "podcasts". But if you want everything to work properly, you also need

RELEASETIME = the podcast's release time/date, so that iTunes knows in what order to put your podcasts in. It's in the format YYYY-MM-DD (eg 2009-08-17). You can also include a time, in which case the format is YYYY-MM-DDThh:mm:ssZ (eg 2009-08-17T06:25:00Z), the Z standing for GMT - but this is optional.
SUBTITLE = the podcast episode's description. Note that this only shows up in iTunes and not on the iPod. Why iTunes doesn't recognise the COMMENT or ITUNESPODCASTDESC fields for this is a mystery.

Speaking of mysteries, if you look at the ID3 tags of files downloaded from the iTunes store, you come across a whole range of mysterious ID3 tags. Of course, it would be far too much to expect Apple to document these, no?

COMMENT ITUNNORM = a long string of hex numbers. Something to do with normalisation?
COMMENT ITUNPGAP = probably related to gapless playback?
ITUNESPODCASTDESC = seems to store a copy of SUBTITLE, but I can't see it being used anywhere in iTunes
ITUNESPODCASTID = this is the URL of the podcast file itself

Is some documentation too much to ask, Apple?

Note that since iTunes only reads in ID3 data when the file is played (or its properties window is opened (right-click -> Get Info), any changes you make to the file's ID3 tags won't appear immediately.

If there was another program which replicated all of iTunes' functionality when it comes to interfacing with my iPod, I would switch to it in a heartbeat. Unfortunately, there isn't... and given Apple's obscure and closed architecture, I doubt there will be one anytime soon.
  • Current Mood
    annoyed annoyed
space sun


I voted! I am pleased to report that I experienced no voter intimidation, and saw no evident of ballot-box stuffing or other irregularities.
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    hopeful hopeful
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The iPod and the geek: Actually using it

After all this faff, time to use this thing for real!

The iPod fits comfortably in one hand, I can use it one-handed with no problems (although, if I want to use the more advanced multi-touch, that will need two hands, as I only have one opposable thumb per hand). The shiny metal back of the iPod seems to be very susceptible to smears and scratches (I'll probably get a rubber protector for it), while the screen feels very solid. I like the feel of the hardware buttons (on/off and volume) - they have a good, solid feel to them, are responsive and easy to identify only by touch. I'm glad they added some hardware buttons to the iPod, I would have been irritated to have to unlock the unit and fiddle with the screen just to change the volume. Full marks for that.

The user interface is... glorious. Not only is it really responsive, but the design is slick (can anyone see a pattern here? :) ) and I found almost everything I was looking for within half a minute the first time. The exception to that is a more detailed battery meter (only a tiny icon in the corner of the screen informs me of the state of the battery), but that's hardly a major problem.

Accessing my music worked really well. I can easily switch between selecting by artist, album or song title (although a search feature would have been nice :) ). The fast-forward and reverse were very slow, but I soon found out why: I can do a direct seek by tapping the screen to bring up a slider representing the track, where I can then drag the cursor to the place on the track where I want to listen from. Fabulous! Unlike the W850, the iPod touch had no problems with tracks exceeding 1 hour in length (the W850 would display all tracks longer than 59'59" as having length 00'00", which made seeking difficult).

My fingers being the size of... well, large, I occasionally don't hit what I'm aiming for on the screen (in particular with the on-screen keyboard). However, I think this is more a matter of practice than anything else. The fact the screen reacts only to fingers (and not pens, keys and such) is great as it virtually eliminates the problem of the iPod unlocking itself in my pocket (the screen locks automatically after a minute, or after I briefly press the power button). The UI reacts well to my finger movements, although I don't think I've discovered all the tricks of using it (for instance, I discovered I can delete stuff by sliding my finger on its name left to right...)

I was a little sceptical about the headphones, I've used in-ear headphones for a while now and they always worked very well (especially when walking near roads; the road noise makes listening to podcasts difficult). However, to my surprise, the iPod earphones were pretty decent. Since they sit outside the ear canal, they don't have the same dynamic range as in-ear headphones, but they still did well and sat securely in my ears without falling out. Too bad the standard headphones don't come with a remote or (more important) a microphone - I know that Apple sells these for an exorbitant price, but maybe they can be had elsewhere for less money. I wish Apple had gone the way of Sony and split the remote / microphone from the headphones, allowing me to buy the headphones separately from the remote / microphone - but then they probably wouldn't make such a profit on the headphones, so... (I wonder if anyone is making third-party headphones for the iPod with the remote / microphone? It shouldn't be too hard to reverse-engineer the signals the remote sends to the iPod - and it would free me from the ghastly white headphones which announces to anyone in the vicinity that I have an iPod).

When playing around with it I noticed a wonderful feature - the iPod keeps track of the last place I was for podcasts! Oh happy day, I have been looking for this feature for ages, and didn't even know the iPod had it. It will show where I got to on each podcast, and whether or not I have listened to an episode or not - even if I take a break and listen to some music in the meantime. Full marks to Apple!

I haven't played with the Wi-Fi (and everything that goes with it) yet, but I'm sure that will happen soon!
  • Current Mood
    impressed impressed
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The iPod and the geek: Plugging in

Right... as per the quickstart manual... "install iTunes, plug iPod into PC, follow instructions on screen".

iTunes... I'm wary. I like my PC to run in very specific ways, and almost always prefer small programs that do one thing without trying to become Your Gateway To Your Music/Data/Whatever. For this reason, iTunes worries me, in the same way that I'm not a fan of Adobe Acrobat, QuickTime1, RealPlayer or Windows Media Player - they do too much to my system without telling me.

I played around with it for awhile, looking at ways to sync my iPod without having to install iTunes. Several alternatives all failed, and in the end, I gave up and installed iTunes. Grumble grumble. The install went smoothly, but it asked almost no questions (I want programs to ask me before installing stuff on my system - I don't need the service to listen to wireless Apple AirPort speakers, so don't install it, damn it!).

At least, after iTunes implanted itself into my PC, it immediately recognised my iPod... and asked me to register it. The explanation given was vague. I'm sorry, Apple, I don't trust you - so no registration for you until you explain to me2 why I should hand over my personal details to you.

iTunes is, no surprise, also very slick - I now see where Songbird (my new, favourite media player) gets its interface from. However, I find that it's often very short on explanations - how, exactly, does it build its "Library"? Why is some of my music displayed in the library and some of it not? Which folders did it check (it claimed to only check ~\My Documents\My Music, but it obviously checked more than that)? How does it distinguish between "podcasts" and "music", and how are they handled differently? Some digging around and experimenting answered some of these questions, but left me with the distinct impression that iTunes was doing an awful lot without telling me... which I'm not too fond of. At least it didn't do what it did to a friend of mine, which was grab her entire music collection, moved it to the iTunes directory, and reorganise it without saying anything.

After plugging in the iPod, iTunes immediately wanted to "synchronise". Fair enough - I started with some music. Ah, you can't sync tracks, you can only synchronise playlists? Okay then, create a playlist with some songs... sync... Wow, the connection is fast! My W850 phone only supports USB 1 (I think - in any case it's ridiculously slow) so that transferring a handful of albums takes half an hour. Not here, in under a minute, everything was synchronised; full marks on that count. iTunes' "smart playlist" function also gets a thumbs-up from me, even if, to use it to its full potential (such as filtering by "number of times played" and "star rating") requires me to switch to iTunes as my primary media player, which I'm not willing to do just yet.

Next up, podcasts. I listen to a lot of podcasts, and the W850 is grossly under-equipped to handle them. Not only does it truncate track titles so it's often impossible to tell which episode is which (the screen reads "Amazing Podcast Numbe..." - helpful!), but its sorting algorithm is a mystery, so I can't even rely on it to listen to my podcasts in some sort of order.

But back to the iPod. I have over a GB of podcasts stored on my hard disk. Surely it's just a matter of importing them into iTunes so that I can sync them to the iPod.......... no sir, no can do. iTunes can only play and sync podcasts which are subscribed in iTunes and downloaded from the iTunes website. Plus, the iPod in its normal configuration is not recognised as a USB mass storage device, so the only way to access it is through iTunes.

This kind of thing drives me batty - Apple is as bad as Microsoft in this regard. It's all well and good that you provide a great centralised service for people to enjoy their music. But don't lock them into only using it and nothing else! Don't presume your users will use your devices only in the way you intended, and block them from doing anything else! *grumble*

So, for the second time in as many hours, I bit into the sour apple and subscribed to my podcasts in iTunes and started siphoning them off the internet - thank heavens for my fast and uncapped internet connection. At least, iTunes seems to do a reasonable job as a podcast aggregator (after I figured out what some of its more cryptic settings meant), although (understandably) it can't retrieve episodes older than the ones listed in each podcast's RSS feed. This is irritating for (in particular, but not solely) the BBC podcasts, which only ever list the latest episode in their RSS feed, forcing you to sync frequently or miss episodes. Of course, I have all the episodes saved on my hard disk, but with no way to import them into iTunes...3

Anyway, enough ranting. The podcast sync was just as fast as the music sync, and, after I ticked the right box, iTunes grabbed all my Outlook contacts4 and synced them as well. It looks like my iPod could become my new address book, too!

Just before the upload, iTunes wanted me to create an account on the iTunes store to... wait for it... "download album covers". Let's just pretend I repeated the rant from eight paragraphs ago and move on. iTunes also gave me the option of synchronising TV shows, but at this point I only had time for a cursory attempt to import some AVI files on my PC into iTunes, which (surprise surprise) failed miserably, before having to leave.

1 I use QuickTime Alternative and RealAlternative to play these formats when I come across them - compatibility without all the bloat, hurrah!
2 Or I look it up on the internet...
3 Some Googling found a hack which would perhaps solve this problem, involving setting some metadata fields for each podcast episodes, but I haven't tried it yet. It's a hassle at the least.
4 Using Outlook as my contacts manager is an unfortunate hold-over from my foray into Windows Mobile-powered PDAs. Even if I have to admit that Outlook is a darn good contacts manager - if only it didn't hog my system so much.
  • Current Mood
    impressed interested
space sun

The iPod and the geek: First impressions

After much to and fro I finally caved in to the glamour and bought an iPod touch. My Sony Ericsson W850i has, for awhile, been my main source of audio entertainment (as well as, obviously, a phone), but the slow and clunky interface, the small screen and other limitations were starting to get on my nerves. With the iPhone being completely out of my budget, the iPod touch seemed a sensible choice to replace the music-player function of my phone. Here are some of my thoughts on this little gadget...

First impressions

Apple sure knows how to make things stylish. The package that arrived in my mailbox was pitifully small (thank you, Amazon!), half the size of a paperback book (about the size of an A6 sheet of paper). My first thought was "this can't be right, it can't all fit in a box this small?". Turns out, they can - encased in a plastic case, there was an iPod, a quick start guide, a USB cable, and a set of headphones. The presentation is nothing if not slick - although getting the plastic case opened was a ten-minute exercise in scraping tape off with fingernails. Getting the iPod off of its "display stand" in the box took another five minutes, I was constantly afraid that I would break something! (The culprit turned out to be yet another piece of transparent tape).

When I finally got the iPod out of its case, it's another example of sleek, slick design (sorry for the alliterations :) ). Very thin and light, with minimalist styling, a "home" button at the bottom of the screen and three very solid buttons for power and volume control. The headphone jack is squeezed into the bottom - the unit is barely thick enough for the 3.5 mm plug!

There is no AC adapter, so I'm guessing it will be charged solely through USB. Hm, I wonder how this will affect me when I go travelling without a laptop...
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    excited excited
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Thoughts on time and Star Trek

Went to see Star Trek (the movie, for those of you living on the dark side of the Moon) last night.

I'll keep this spoiler-free for those of you who haven't seen it yet, but I wanted to air some thoughts.

I enjoyed the new Star Trek film (there, I said it). However, for most of the film I couldn't help but compare it to one clip from Stargate SG-1's episode 200 (for those of you who don't know the episode, it's a pastiche of the series, pitched as a producer who wants to make a new version of Stargate SG-1, but "edgier", with a "younger cast". Hilarity ensues.). This, to my mind, fits the new Star Trek film very well - this is TOS1 for the 2010s.

For one thing, Kirk is ridiculously young. This is a guy in his late 20s, who is (by a series of events which I won't spoil here) put in command of the fracking Flagship of the Federation (think of it as a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier if that helps to make the point). There must have been most of a crew more qualified for the job than him! And this is right after his involvement in a series of events which probably did little to endear him to the command hierarchy.

Plus, whilst it's true to character that Kirk was not exactly a man who played by the rules, in this film he not only breaks but utterly smashes so many of them (as well as spending at least 10% of the film involved in fistfights with someone, usually with another member of his crew!). In a quasi-military organisation like Starfleet, that should have some serious repercussions, but of course it doesn't, because this is Kirk we're talking about here. I guess I'm just annoyed that his "punch, blast, blow it all up, what the hell" attitude seems to yield positive results.

This is where I think my rose-tinted glasses are impairing my judgement, but I'm sure that Star Trek was never this... blatantly over-the-top. Maybe I'm just getting old, and my standards for what I consider over-the-top have moved down. Or maybe Star Trek was never very subtle, just that, when I was younger and more impressionable, it didn't occur to me to think of it as over-the-top.

It's a wild ride - the special effects are jaw-droppingly gorgeous (possibly the best I've seen in awhile, and coming from a sci-fi geek, that's saying something), and the film has bucketloads of references and in-jokes for all the geeks in the audience (Admiral Archer's pet beagle? :) ). Often, getting all the references is half the joy for me, and this film provides it in droves.

Also, it's clear the actors are having a blast - Simon Pegg as Scotty and Karl Urban as Dr McCoy (he even gets a "I'm a doctor, not a..." line) are a joy to watch. Even the very post-feminist Uhura gets some good moments (and smoochies! That's all I will say about that...).

To close, here's a badly mangled quote from Jamie Hyneman of Mythbusters fame:

"Jim [Kirk] wants big boom."

1 The Original Series, the first Star Trek television series (with Kirk, Spock et al)
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    happy happy
space sun

Sunk costs and high speed human powered transport

Late last year, soon after my move to the (glorious :) ) city of Hamburg, my bicycle started having... issues. This bike (nicknamed the Tankmobile by a friend who shall remain nameless *grin*) has been with me since before university, and has clocked over seven thousand kilometres. It's a tough little thing (mmmh German engineering :) ), and I've replaced most of its parts over the years (several more than once - normal wear and tear), but soon after its introduction to the frozen wastes of northern Germany, several things went wrong at once.

First, the forward brake pade wore through. No problem, replaced them, 15 €.

At this point I decided to upgrade my bike lights from a sidewall dynamo to a hub dynamo. After a few weeks in Hamburg I found that the sidwall dynamo was not only noisy and very inefficient, but failed whenever it was wet (this being Hamburg... it was wet a lot), and since it got dark so soon in the evenings I badly needed good lighting. So: lighting upgrade. All parts, no assembly (that engineering degreee has got to be good for something, right?), 140 €.

Then the rear brake pads wore through (all that grit from the snow-covered streets, perhaps?). 15 €.

Then the rear gear hub failed. Not spectacularly, but after so much wear the one-way rotation mechanism died, leaving the hub to free-wheel in both directions. Since the hub is a part of the wheel that meant a new rear wheel. And a new gear hub, which had been badly worn by all the free-wheeling and slipping chain. New gear hub with worn chain = baaaad, so throw in a new chain. Plus assembly (I can assemble a chain and gear train, but it's an enormous pain, especially since I'd be working in my apartment hallway): 100 €.

So far, that was all (touch wood), although the front gearshift is starting to give signs that it's about to go, and even the frame occasionally makes creaking sounds it probably shouldn't.

Throughout this process I kept asking myself if I was doing the right thing, whether I should just have bought a new bike. I'm well aware of the sunk cost fallacy, but I had trouble applying it here. The cost of a new bike obviously exceeded the cost of any one repair, but when taken in combination... (I'm not there yet - a new bike of the sort I'm looking for would probably set me back 500 €, but if things keep breaking...).

So, a question to you, dear readers - when something starts breaking and needs to be repaired, at what point do you throw it out and replace it? And what would you have done in my place?

Postscript: Hub dynamos, especially if you've known nothing but battery lighting or sidewall dynamos, are a godsend. They generate almost no rolling resistance (at least, I can't notice any), are completely silent, run in all weather conditions, and don't wear out. You control your lights by a switch on the front lamp, and even mid-range models have light sensors which switch your lights on and off depending on how light it is outside - so they turn on automatically whenever it gets dark or you enter a tunnel. The same mid-range front light is wonderfully bright (much brighter than my old one, even when I'm going slowly), and the rear light has a capacitor which will keep it burning for about three minutes when I' stopped at a traffic light.

I know that hub dynamos are not available everywhere (the bike shop salesman in France had never even heard of them), but if you do any cycling in twilight or darkness, I can't recommend them enough. Gorgeous pieces of engineering.

Post-postscript: Tuesday's snowfall turned to ice by Tuesday night, and that ice probably hid a nice shard of glass somewhere... flat tyre. Curses.
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    contemplative contemplative